Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An Exclusive Glimpse of the Met's Renovated Old Masters Galleries; Museum to Announce This Major Project in a Few Weeks

The overstuffed gallery of Venetian Renaissance art before renovation with red walls that competed with the paintings.
Venetian art now occupies twice the wall space, with paintings hung at eye level and more space around each work.  Renovation continues behind the screen.
The Met will soon announce its construction and renovation endeavors, as was first reported here September 22, to rehang and expand -- by about 20% -- its European Paintings galleries of Old Masters.  A celebratory press release is expected within a few weeks.

It is not yet clear how much the project will cost, whether any large donations will result in naming rights, or whether the rehanging of the collection will reflect any rethinking of art history.

The Met would not comment on the project pending its own announcement.  But Met spokesperson Elyse Topalian did assure this reporter that Duccio's Madonna and Child, the Met's most expensive acquisition (at a reported $45 million) which has been off-view since July, will soon be back on display in a gallery set aside for works temporarily displaced by the renovation.

The project is expected to be completed by May of next year.  Meantime, a few Italian Renaissance galleries have already reopened, and if what's seen there is any indication of what's in store -- well, it will be like seeing familiar Old Masters for the first time.

"Rediscovered": Pietro da Rimini, Crucifixion, 1330s
In the few renovated galleries, you can now actually see a fair number of paintings that were out of sight because they were hung over doorways like an architectural ornament or above other paintings in a pell-mell jumble.  Some of this art has been rehung at eye level.

There's also more space around the artworks, so each can be seen without distraction.  Concentrated viewing is facilitated by gray walls instead of the sometimes vibrantly colored ones that competed with the art.

How dramatic these changes are can be seen in the before and after photos (at top) of  the display of Venetian art, which now occupies about twice as much real estate.

Equally dramatic is the "rediscovery" of a large fragment of the Crucifixion by Pietro da Rimini after years of near-invisibility above a door frame.  Now that it is at eye level, it is sure to be valued as one of the glories of the Met's early Italian Renaissance paintings.

Some works in a renovated gallery of secular art this reporter can't remember having seen before -- perhaps because of better lighting or recent cleaning.  One hopes that the series of portraits now hung there just below the ceiling are an experimental placement that will be reconsidered.

Portraits hung below the ceiling: Back to the past?
Something new and of questionable value -- some labels now refer the viewer to the Met's website, even for such essential information as the translation of a brief inscription.  The Met's website is a rich resource, but not everyone carries a computer or an iPhone to look up information on the spot.

Top photo from Met website.  Other photos and text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

In a Potentially Game-Changing Decision, New York Appellate Court Rules that Auction Houses Must Name Seller

This box "sold" for $400,000 but the winning bidder can't be forced to pay.
An auction house must disclose the name of the seller -- in writing -- if it wants to collect on the sale when the purchaser refuses to pay up, a New York State appellate court has ruled.  This comes upon the auction industry as a shock, given the universal practice that keeps the seller's identity confidential -- upon the seller's request.

The lawsuit that resulted in the ruling was brought by one of the smaller auction houses, William J. Jenack Estate Appraisers & Associates in Chester, New York, to force the winning bidder for an elaborately decorated box to pay up, and the September 19 decision has been largely ignored outside the specialized antiques trade.

But it is such a potential game-changer that Christie's is reportedly joining in Jenack's appeal to New York's highest court.  Christie's declined to comment.

If the ruling is upheld or not heard on further appeal, "it seems to me that it will be a radical change because so many people want their identity to be confidential," said Peter R. Stern of the New York law firm McLaughlin & Stern, who advises collectors and artists' estates and for nearly 25 years was outside counsel to a major auction house.

Privacy, Tax Evasion, and Money Laundering

The reasons for anonymity range all the way from simple concern for privacy to tax evasion and money laundering -- tax evasion is "a regular occurrence" and money laundering "a driving force in certain territories," according to the Economist's art market writer Sarah Thornton (the quotes are from her widely cited recent article in TAR magazine).

In the litigation, Jenack sued a telephone bidder, Albert Rabizadeh, to recover $400,000 that Rabizadeh had bid in 2008 for what was described as a 19th-century Russian gilt-lined box.  Rabizadeh had neither paid for the box nor taken possession of it.

The lower court decided in favor of the auctioneer, but a unanimous four-judge panel of the Appellate Division's Second Department ruled that the contract of sale was not enforceable because it did not name the consignor.  It dismissed the complaint, leaving Rabizadeh with no obligation to make good on his bid.

Burden on Consignors and Auction Houses
The court acknowledged that its ruling is contrary to longstanding industry practice, but stated, "this Court is governed not by the practice in the trade, but by the relevant statute."

That statute is Section 5-701(a)(6) of New York's General Obligations Law, which describes the components of enforceable auction agreements.  It states that "if the goods be sold at public auction, and the auctioneer at the time of the sale, enters in a sale book, a memorandum specifying the nature and price of the property sold, the terms of the sale, the name of the purchaser, and the name of the person on whose account the sale was made, such memorandum is equivalent in effect to a note of contract or sale." (Italics added.)

The sale documents that auctioneer Jenack sought to force Rabizadeh to pay on did not reveal the name of the person on whose account the property was sold -- that person was identified instead only by a number -- and therefore, in the court's view, Jenack did not have an enforceable contract.

To the extent that the statute "may be at odds with the general industry practice, and may be burdensome to consignors or auction houses or both, a change in the law to eliminate that requirement may be warranted.  However, consideration of the propriety of that change is not for the courts, but rests with the Legislature," the court wrote.

Changing How Collectors Sell
Could the decision change how collectors sell?  "It could quite well happen that sellers would choose to go through a dealer, who doesn't have to disclose a name," said attorney Stern.

Steven Thomas, head of the art law practice at Irell Manella, who negotiated the Andy Warhol Foundation's consignment agreement to offer its inventory at Christie's, sees the decision as "not very significant because it's a narrow ruling on an odd and unique set of facts" that may well have turned on the auction house's failure to argue that naming itself as the seller's agent was enough to make the contract enforceable.

And the court itself may have set out the agency argument as the roadmap for the appeal.  It noted that Jenack "does not argue, and, therefore, we do not consider, whether the requirement that the memorandum specify 'the name of the person on whose account the sale was made' was satisfied by inclusion . . . of its own name or the name of an agent of the consignor."

It is by no means certain, however, that an appeal will be heard.  Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York Court of Appeals picks its cases carefully and hears relatively few, so the Second Department decision may well remain undisturbed as the highest court ruling.

For now, said Stern, "if you want to maintain confidentiality [in an auction house sale], you might run the risk of a bidder reneging.  Reneging is not that common," though, he explained.

Image from

Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery" at the Frick; Can An Abundance of Greatness Ever Be Too Much of a Grand Thing?

Rubens, Portrait of Helena Fourment
Who can take issue with a surplus of the sublime, even if it's contained in two small rooms in the Frick's shoebox of a basement and a tiny room on the street-level floor?

It's a relatively small show of drawings by Michelangelo, Durer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Ingres -- and that's just the beginning of the cornucopia of great artists represented in 58 works on loan from London's Courtauld Gallery.

That's not to ignore Bernini, Canaletto, Watteau, or Fragonard -- they're here too.  As are Goya, van Gogh, and Manet.

Parmigianino, Seated Woman
It's like a ten-pound box of chocolate truffles -- way too many sweets to savor in a single sitting.

As might be expected in a show that covers art from the late Middle Ages to the early 20th century, the styles and purposes of the drawings are all over the place.  There are Leonardo's scribbled studies of Mary Magdalene, Pieter Breugel the Elder's detailed line drawing of a peasant scene that would be used to make a print, and a watercolor by Cezanne meant as a finished piece.

Rembrandt's drawings here are a quick visual record of whatever interested him.  Parmigianino seemed to pick up the chalk because he liked a woman's pose.  Goya's drawing inhabits his private world of witches and demons.  Mantegna struggled to get the posture of Christ just right and used both sides of the same sheet.

Workshop of Hugo van der Goes, Seated Saint
Then there are the works significant as part of art history:  The Dream by Michelangelo, one of the first drawings conceived as an independent work of art; one of the earliest Italian landscape drawings, by Fra Bartolomeo (ca. 1505-09); and the extremely rare, delicate pen and ink drawing of a saint from the workshop of the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (ca. 1475-85).

There's not much context to learn about a particular artist or a period of art or a technique.  Exceptionally high quality is the glue that holds the show together.  So this is an exhibit that presents art as pretty much ahistorical and at its most fundamental -- pure visual pleasure, of which there is plenty.

A few drawings stand out, even amid this elite group.

Rubens, Portrait of Helena Fourment, ca. 1630-31 (top).  Rubens' drawings of his family are among the greatest drawings in the history of Western art, and this portrait of his young second wife is sublime.  The viewer sees a sensual woman revealing herself -- lifting her veil to reveal soft skin; even the sleeve of her dress falling ever so slightly around her wrist is sensual -- but she herself is modest, seemingly unaware of her effect on the viewer, her husband.  A love letter without words.

Michelangelo, The Dream, ca. 1533.  The Dream is always described as "enigmatic."  A man is surrounded by figures that seem to illustrate the seven deadly sins, but who is he and what's he dreaming about?  Like much of Michelangelo's work, the drawing celebrates the male body -- here, in a sexual way, with the legs spread wide open.  It's thought to have been made for a Roman nobleman the artist was passionately in love with, Tomasso de' Cavalieri.

Ingres, Study for La Grande Odalisque, 1814 (below).  Ingres always knew how to concentrate the eye.  In his portrait drawings anything other than the face and hands -- the most expressive parts of the body -- might as well not exist.  Here his sensuous line, which modern masters like Picasso and Matisse were smitten with, focuses on the breast and buttocks, although one rarely thinks of the cool Ingres as a T&A man.

Bernini, Design for East Wing of the Louvre, 1664 (above).  Bernini had an international reputation, not just as a sculptor but as an architect as well, and he was asked by the French government to submit a design for the Louvre.  Like his sculpture, his architecture animates the space around it.  This design, with its exuberant bulge, was rejected in favor of Claude Perrault's flat and boring facade.

Ribera, Man Tied to a Tree, ca. 1630-35.  In this brutal red-chalk drawing, an old man is tied to a tree, helplessly reaching out, and another man is seated, perhaps in despair.  It's not known what provoked this drawing, what its purpose was, or what it means, but it's gripping, disturbing, and beautiful.

Cezanne, Apples, Bottle, and Chairback, ca. 1904-06 (below).  This watercolor painted at the end of Cezanne's life has everything admired in his paintings -- things are slightly off kilter, the table is impossibly tilted forward, the outlines make no sense, yet the painting hangs together as a wonderful whole, full of tension and visual incident.

"Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery,"  Frick Museum, 70th Street at Fifth Avenue, through January 23, 2013.

Images from the Courtauld Gallery website.

Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Bernini: Sculpting in Clay" at the Met: How'd He Do It?

Bernini, Charity with Four Children, ca. 1627-34
This knockout, old-style exhibition which opens today at the Met yields up plenty to learn about Bernini, the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, whose work -- from the double colonnade in front of St. Peter's to the fountains that dot the city -- changed the face of Rome.

The show gathers together some 50 clay models and 30 related drawings for many of Bernini's sculptures, and traces the artist's thoughts as he rejected some ideas and developed others.

Bacchanal, ca. 1616-17
Forget fancy curatorial theorizing.  This show has science combined with solid art historical analysis, reflecting the unusual collaboration of Harvard Art Museums conservator Anthony Sigel, who studied, stabilized, and conserved much of the work; Frick director Ian Wardropper (ex-chair of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Met); and C.D. Dickerson III, curator of European art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, the exhibit's only other venue.  It was Dickerson's work with Sigel on Bernini's model for the Moor that sparked the show.

The exhibit begins with a marble sculpture, a bacchanal with a faun teased by children, by a young Bernini and his father.  It gives just a glimpse of what's so appealing in much of Bernini's work -- a dynamic liveliness that makes the viewer want to walk around the statue and a total mastery of the human figure, as though the artist were painting in stone.

Lion (Four Rivers Fountain), ca. 1649
Bernini quickly became a favorite of Rome's most powerful patrons, including a few Popes, and became in turn the city's most powerful artist -- and with commissions for massive projects in St. Peter's he employed a lot of other talents, including Borromini, who would rival him as an architect.

The bacchanal is the only finished sculpture on view (it's from the Met's own collection).  The rest are small models that show Bernini working out his ideas, both the rough models early in the process (called bozzetti) and the more finished pieces that might be shown to the client or serve as a guide for Bernini's workshop (called modelli).

Some of these are wonderfully expressive -- St. Longinus, for St. Peter's; the lion and the Moor, for the fountains in the Piazza Navona; Charity with four children; Daniel, for Santa Maria del Popolo; a life-size head of St. Jerome.

St. Longinus, ca. 1628
Made of extremely fragile terracotta, a type of red clay, relatively few models have survived -- the artist Joachim von Sandraert saw 22 in Bernini's studio for his statue of St. Longinus, but only two are known today -- and many of those that have survived bear the damage of a hard life.

Additional insight into Bernini's thinking and working methods can be had from his drawing, and the fullest demonstration of Bernini's process is where both drawings and clay models have survived.

One example is the preparatory studies for the ten angels that line the bridge from Rome proper to the Castel Sant'Angelo and Vatican City, a Papal commission that Bernini undertook when he was 70.

Angel with Superscription, ca. 1667-68
He seems to have begun by drawing a live male model -- you can see his jockstrap -- and then sculpting a nude figure in clay to which he attached wings before developing the drapery and instruments of the Passion.

Those seeking the dazzle of Bernini's finished sculptures -- the portraits that seem to breathe, the female saints in an almost sexual ecstasy -- may be disappointed.  Those works that take your breath away are here only in large black-and-white photographs.

But if you want to see the modeling done by a supreme artist's bare hands, facial expression masterfully made with wooden tools, and surfaces sometimes smoothed with wet or dry brushes or the artist's own fingers, the intimacy gained from that experience will be ample reward.

St. Jerome, 1661
"Bernini: Sculpting in Clay," Metropolitan Museum, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, through January 6, 2013.

Text and images (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert